Tales from the 1960s chalkface


When Susan Elkin was 21 she went to work in a scandalously challenging boys’ school in Deptford – one of the first women on the staff. In an extract from her new book, she tells her often horrifying, often funny story.


The interview

Harry Baker surveyed me quizzically over his glasses before hurrying round his desk and across the dark, rather dingy room he had for an office. Then he smiled. Perhaps it was my shortish, bright orange 1960s interview dress. Or perhaps he hadn’t spoken to a woman under-50 for a while.

Actually, I realised much, much, later he was, at that moment, offering silent prayers of thanksgiving to the God of headteachers. Divisional Office had sent him a reasonably normal, able-bodied young teacher who might, just might, turn out to be the answer to a prayer and grow into someone who could fill one of the numerous staffing gaps in his “challenging” – very challenging – south London boys’ school where the testosterone flowed in the gutters and nearly everywhere else.

“Who knows?” Mr Baker was thinking, 40 years of experience behind him and between him and me, as he showed me courteously downstairs to the playground where he parked his car – a weathered, unhurried Ford Consul – rather like its owner. And the fact that I was young, female, pretty wet behind the ears – and therefore a most unlikely contender – didn’t seem to faze him. In fact I suspect I was an exotic novelty and therefore rather appealing. Not quite a Mary Quant-style dolly bird perhaps, but I didn’t look too bad by Deptford standards. It was June 1968 and I had just completed a pretty useless, head-in-the-clouds-but-rarely-in-the-classroom, three-year teacher training course at an airy-fairy college on the south coast...

Three days later – the supply teacher 

And now they were faced with this useless young woman clutching a pile of boring, tatty books and saying repeatedly and feebly in her very un-Deptford voice: “Oh please sit down – we’re going to start this really good book today.”

What on earth was I supposed to do with Shane? Nothing in my vacuous, project-based three years at college had indicated what you were supposed to do with a class reader – especially one you hadn’t read yourself, nor even heard of until 10 minutes before.

So I did the only thing I could think of which was to give out the copies and then attempt to read it round the class as we used to do when I was their age, only nine years earlier. That meant asking them to take turns in reading aloud, interspersed with me reading while they followed.

Not a good idea. I suppose it might have worked for a while with a more able group, but most of these boys had poor reading skills and reading aloud was torture. Of course they weren’t going to let me humiliate them in front of each other so they subverted me and the lesson. In short they played up – with great expertise.

One large boy kicked off. “Have you got a boyfriend, Miss?” Another quickly chipped in with: “Do you have sex with him?” A third called out: “Do you use Durex?”

A gravelly-voiced boy started to growl obscenities under his breath, but audibly. Two Turkish boys who had deliberately placed themselves in opposite corners of the classroom shouted at each other in Turkish – obviously a practised ploy. The teamwork was generally very assured.

By the time I was walking round the room trying to shush and calm the onslaught and stop the cackles of laughter, they were all trying to out-do each other. One very small weasel-like boy viciously taunted: “Have you got a Tampax in, Miss?”

A rather better lesson

And so it was that a day or two later I was sitting in on a surprisingly “progressive” lesson. Jack had the boys sitting seminar-style round a “table” consisting of desks pushed together in a block. This was so that they could discuss the passage he was presenting. 

He was using a text about cars from English Through Experience Book III by AW Rowe and Peter Emens. I still have a copy of it. Jack was by far the most gifted teacher I had ever seen in action and, actually, to this day he’d still be in my top five.

I watched and listened incredulously as he led the boys through the information about the new (1963) specifications for the Ford Consul Cortina and Hillman Minx deluxe. He coaxed and questioned. He made sure every boy in the group was involved, he adeptly explained to them and, incidentally, to me that the cc rating in a car refers to the volume of cylinder swept by the pistons.

The whole lesson, at the end of which he sent the boys off to do some related written work for homework, was fascinating, both in terms of content and method. I’d never imagined, for example, that an English lesson could go beyond “literature” and the mechanics of using language correctly. It taught me more about English teaching than three years at college had done...

The form teacher

1B and I were assigned to Room 9, on the bottom corridor. It was a dark-ish room because of the protective grilles on the outside which kept the glass safe from stray footballs in the playground. Nonetheless it was mine – my very first classroom – and I felt like a queen in a palace. It wasn’t quite what Virginia Woolf meant by “a room of one’s own” but it certainly came close.

But no-one had told me about the coal lorry.

The school had pretty efficient solid fuel heating which meant that it guzzled many tons of coal. And it had to be delivered. Frequently. The cellars, I soon discovered, lay below Room 9 and the coal chute was immediately outside the window about three feet from my desk.

The first time we had a delivery – on the second or third day of term – the room suddenly went darker than ever because almost all the light was instantly blocked by the coal lorry. As the coal was forcibly shot down the chute the whole room vibrated. The juddering, bone-rattling noise made it impossible to speak or even think. I’ve never been in an earthquake but I found out how it would feel – twice a week for a year. It took half an hour and you could neither speak nor think while it was happening.

There was another problem with that room too. 1968/69 was the winter during which an almost forgotten national experiment was tried. We didn’t put the clocks back in October and ran on Greenwich Mean Time right through the winter. 

It meant, when the days were at their shortest, leaving home in pitch darkness. Then came the less than glamorous experience of dawn over Deptford at about 9am. Room 9 was so dark from November to February that we needed all the lights on most of the time. I felt like a mother mole in charge of 35 mole-lets or whatever young moles are called.

  • Susan Elkin is now a well-established journalist, author and former SecEd columnist. Her ebook Please Miss We’re Boys is available to download as an e-book on Kindle and can also be read on SmartPhones, tablets and computers via the Kindle app.


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